WHY VISIT RELIGIO-CULTURAL SITES ABROAD, WHEN WE DESTROY THEM AT HOME?

TEESTA SETALVAD
Monday, August 24,2015

MUMBAI: This week, August 19, 2015, the Supreme Court will have heard for the 27th time the appeal of the Gujarat government in the matter re-building of several dozen shrines destroyed, due to state inaction and complicity, during the Violence of 2002.

Why is this narrative relevant here and now? We have been witness to a curious spectacle in the last week of a prominent politician promenading in a Mosque. And public discourse has, surprisingly chosen to overlook this particular narrative, blurring as it were its trajectory.

Building on the documentation mentioned above, a group of community leaders had, since 2002, petitioned the Gujarat High Court on the state’s responsibility towards re-building those religious and cultural places that had been willfully desecrated.

By the way, the Hague Convention of 1954 (or the Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict) recognised that the preservation of "cultural heritage is of great importance for all peoples of the world" and that "damage to cultural property belonging to any people whatsoever means damage to the cultural heritage of all mankind." India is a signatory to this convention.

In 1972, a protocol to this Convention was adopted, which identified "cultural heritage" as, among other things, "monuments, architectural works, works of monumental sculpture and painting, elements or structures of an archaeological nature, inscriptions, cave dwellings and combinations of features, which are of outstanding universal value from the point of view of history, art or science". Every State that had acceded to the Hague Convention, it held, recognised that "the duty of ensuring the identification, protection, conservation, presentation and transmission to future generations of the cultural and natural heritage situated on its territory, belongs primarily to that State."

At its General Conference meeting in 2001, UNESCO adopted a resolution that sought to define the circumstances under which an act could be construed as a "crime against the common heritage of humanity." It reiterated the need for all member-states to accede to and observe the various conventions it had evolved over the years. And it authorised the Director-General of the organisation to formulate for the next session of the General Conference, a "Draft Declaration" which would define the circumstances under which the "Intentional Destruction of Cultural Heritage" could be deemed to have taken place. Given the clear mandate of the Indian Constitution and our laws, not to mention the international law, the administration of districts and the government of Gujarat was clearly liable.

How did the GOG respond to this consistent effort by community leaders to right the wrongs unleashed upon them? With stiff, bitter resistance. In fact, the attitude of the state of Gujarat was so intransigent that, on 8.2.2012 (the same day that the SIT , headed by RK Raghavan, late in the evening filed a Closure Report on the Zakia Jafri Criminal Complaint) the High Court of Gujarat had passed a stinging Order against the government. The Gujarat Government, stung by this reprimand, but unashamed in its absence of either remorse or reparation, hastily filed an appeal. In this appeal, the GOG hotly contested what the High Court had decreed was the fundamental right of all citizens.

In this appeal that has dragged on and is again, now before the Supreme Court, the government had then argued that it was anti-Constitutional to use state government money to build shrines of a particular community. All through 2012, the state government keeping its tradition of 2002 and post 2002 brand of ‘governance’ alive, had stiffly resisted, in pretty crass terms any attempts to make good or compensate this cultural loss.

The story continued in the Supreme Court of India. After the appeal had been promptly filed against the High Court decision, pretty efficiently by government standards and at the first hearing on July 9, 2012, the state government displayed the same arrogant obduracy. Tushar Mehta, then advocate general for the state, had argued orally that the State exchequer could not be used for building and repairing religious sites (never mind that it was due to State inaction at best, and complicity at worst that had led to the destruction in the first place).Fortunately, the Supreme Court was unconvinced. The SC had sharply rebuked Mehta saying, “You [State] compensate if a house is washed away in a flood or if it is damaged in an earthquake or tsunami. Then why not in the case of a religious place?”

Much water has flown under the proverbial bridge since then and we should have by now known what is today the Union government's, (State (Gujarat) and Central (India)] stand on the question, under changed circumstances as it were. There have been several hearings in the interim in the state’s appeal in the Supreme Court, it is three years since the date (on 27.8.2012) that the government of Gujarat promised to present a scheme for the repair and restructuring of the shrines.

And times, as we always say, have changed. Today, firm in its desire to retain a grip on power, power that was unashamedly sought and gained with a majoritarian vote (the spread nationally was at 31 per cent) the party in power is willing to risk even driving its bloodhounds a bit crazy as it gingerly steps within a Masjid’s doors.

Last week while in Ahmedabad, post sunset, as the lights flickered on, I bent my head as I strolled through the Shah-e-Alam Durgah at Dani Limda in Ahmedabad. Aiyyub, my friend was with me, recounting the five months spent at the Durgah turned relief camp. As we walked, humbled and awed through the vast sacred spaces that today seemed so immense, I shivered as I remembered 2002, when teeming with 12,500 internally displaced persons, it had seemed so small, so crowded.

Its’ warmth and protective precincts had provided succour to battered women and broken men, bewildered children who had had their childhoods torn away, in the space of 72 hours. A cruel, horrible 72 hours.

Those days, the lines between the dark of the night and broad daylight had blurred. Rapes and murders could, and were allowed to take place, for hours, as the rays of the sun moved relentlessly over the scene, not even shaming the offender. During those days, I remember how, the shrine of Wali Gujarati was torn down on the night of February 28-March 1. It was just across the office of the then commissioner of police, PC Pande. Three days later, in the presence of prominent persons, a tarred road was constructed over the place where the shrine had once stood, obliterating a symbol and reality that had stayed the course, for centuries.

Not just at Shahibaug, near the Police Commissionerate, but in many locations in Gujarat those days there had been official sanction for such obliteration. After shrines belonging to the faith of the Minority (including Christians) were destroyed, the idol of a Hulladiya Hanuman(riot Hanuman) idol had been installed there with darshans and artis also being held.

Born in Aurangabad in 1667, Wali Gujarati was and is regarded as the founder of the modern Urdu poem. He travelled widely and was also known as Wali Aurangabadi or Wali Dakhani. Ironically, he was a frequent traveller to Gujarat and wrote lovingly of its centres, especially Surat. He died in Ahmedabad in 1707, on one of numerous visits to the city. Then, the people of this region, Gujarat, subscribing to a richer and inclusive worldview, built a tomb for him in Ahmedabad and proudly laid claim to his legacy by bestowing upon him the title of Wali Gujarati.

The mosque of Malik Asin (Asas, Imadul Mulk) at Ahmedabad, built in the reign of Sultan Mahmud Begada (1458-1511) was also one of the shrines that had been destroyed. A protected monument built in stone, this structure was destroyed within hours and with military precision, in an operation involving the use of a crane and bulldozers. At around the same time, the mosque of Muhafiz Khan at Ahmedabad was also badly damaged. Among the other shrines destroyed is the tomb of Ustad Faiyaz Khan in Vadodara, which was attacked and wreathed in burning tyres in early March of 2002. Extensive damage was inflicted on the façade of the structure commemorating a man who the erstwhile ruling dynasty of Varodara declared in 1912, was the greatest singer in the realm.

But then, that was then, and this is now. The worm, as they say, has turned.

(Writers note: We at Communalism Combat were among those to document the district-wise cultural and religious desecration In Gujarat (totaling 237 shrines) and the documentation can be viewed at http://www.sabrang.com/cc/archive/2002/marapril/rdestruction.htm)



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